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John Beane is president of Staff Development Services in Leland, N.C., a small HR boutique with a large web presence, he says. Beane has been an independent consultant for 24 years. “I’ve gotten clients through Google ad words, but so far not much from LinkedIn or Facebook,” he says. “I stay busy, so I don’t Twitter,” he adds.Beane says that his most beneficial method of gaining clients has been “speaking for free at meetings of my particular type of clientele.”
Karen Fuqua, president of Fuqua Consulting Group in Ocean Springs, Miss., on the other hand, says: “Yes, I have gained projects from social media sites such as LinkedIn and Twitter.” These, she says, “initially came in the form of a request for some type of PR story. Then a reader saw the piece and contacted me—marketing gravity, if you will.”
Warren Heaps, a partner with Birches Group in New York City, a specialized consultancy focused on labor market data and organizational development tools, has also found success online. “I have done business with contacts and relationships built through active participation in online sites,” he says.
Heaps says he started using social media sites two years ago: LinkedIn, Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) bulletin boards, other web site bulletin boards and the international HR Yahoo! Group. “It has helped establish my expertise in the HR community, introduced me to numerous colleagues and, importantly, has resulted in business,” he says. Heaps says he has “tracked down” contacts in multiple countries and in companies where he had no prior contact.
“Through discussions and answering questions, independent and smaller players get the chance to promote their expertise and their brand and at the same time establish professional relationships and assist colleagues with business challenges,” says Heaps.
Caren Goldberg is a human resource management professor and consultant who has tested various sites without much success. LinkedIn, on the other hand, has provided “mostly positive” experiences.
The job sites, she says, seemed to be geared more toward freelancers than consultants, with jobs primarily for writers, designers, web programmers and the like. Elance.com, for example, says it is “the leading site for online work where businesses connect with independent professionals to get work done.” While users include entrepreneurs, companies and nonprofits, most of the posted jobs, Goldberg noted, tend to be marketing and communications related.
VirtualVocations.com offers a broader range of jobs, all designed to be done through telecommuting. A recent posting, for instance, was looking for “a couple Ph.D. students or former students who have experience in personality testing, workplace compatibility testing and human behavior.”
The majority, however, are non-HR related, so while there might be some gems within these listings, the time required to find them is not likely to be worthwhile. On Guru.com, Goldberg says, she has seen a few HR-related jobs, but Guru, like Elance, is a “bidding” site, meaning that those interested must bid—privately—against others. “To a large extent on sites where you bid for projects, American consultants are at a disadvantage because they’re competing against other parts of the world where English is spoken well and people are highly educated, but they’re willing to work for a lot less than Americans are,” says Goldberg.
On the SHRM web site, a source of information on HR consulting opportunities is at http://jobs.shrm.org/. One recent posting reads: “The Town of … seeks consultant to review existing Human Resources Policy Manual and Employee Handbook identifying policies that require updating, deletion or rewriting. Final product will be production of completed policy manual and handbook in hard and electronic form.”
However, most job sites do not seem to hold a great deal of value for HR consultants. And, competition can be fierce. There are other online opportunities, however. Goldberg and others say that social media sites—primarily LinkedIn—have proven to be a good source of prospects and even clients.
“I check my LinkedIn groups several times a day,” says Goldberg. “I have found it to be a very useful tool.” Goldberg’s work is related to diversity and discrimination; she often serves as an expert witness. She’s found that becoming active in groups whose members are attorneys is a great way to make connections—and stand out.
“When I respond to a query I’m responding as one of probably a handful of non-attorneys, so I really stand out a little bit more on those groups than I do on the HR networking groups where there are plenty of Ph.D.-level consultants,” she notes.
As with any type of networking, it can take time to build relationships. “I think that’s something that a lot of consultants tend to overlook—they want to go for the immediate cash cow,” says Goldberg. That’s not likely to happen. But, relationships can lead to business down the road and even collaborative arrangements with other consultants.
Goldberg’s niche approach is good, says Scott Testa, a social media expert and consultant, based in Philadelphia. “If you can leverage those networks to really differentiate yourself in the marketplace, you’ll stand out,” he says.
Of course, HR consultants want to stand out in a good way, and that means paying attention to the protocol—generally unwritten—about how to interact through social media effectively. A big “don’t,” says Testa, is don’t try to sell services aggressively. Instead, consultants should try to build a reputation as great sources of information and expertise—and share that expertise freely.
Goldberg agrees. “People forget that this is social networking,” she says. “The wise consultant is one who looks at queries that are posted and says: ‘Oh, I have something to add to that—or I have experienced a similar thing and here’s how I’ve addressed it’,” she says. “Then folks see you have something to offer.”
Ultimately, while online sites and social media networks can be good tools for HR consultants, they do not replace traditional networking efforts, Testa cautions. “They’re tools on your toolbelt —but they don’t necessarily replace what I would consider traditional networking such as meet and greets, meetings, conferences, et cetera.”
Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues.
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